Sweepings 1933 Directed by John Cromwell. Pre-code melodrama/ family saga. Daniel Pardway (Lionel Barrymore) and his wife Abigail (Ninetta Sunderland) arrive in Chicago to find the city in burnt-out ruins after the big fire. (Barrymore is barely middle aged.) The visionary turns a feed and grain center into a general store called the Bazaar, at first sleeping among chickens in the curtained back. Year by year, he adds departments, along the way promoting outrageous sales. At one of these, short of counter staff, clerks are hired from the teeming crowd. One is immigrant Abe Ullman (Gregory Ratoff) who rises to General Manager giving his life to the Bazaar.
In cliché rich kid fashion, each of the four children is a disappointment, either dissipated or disinterested. Next to no consequences are suffered for irresponsible behavior. The Daniel Pardway character is based on Marshall Field, American entrepreneur and founder of the Chicago based department store chain. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Ah, Wilderness! 1935 Adapted from the play by Eugene O’Neill. Directed by Clarence Brown. Like Life With Father, a valentine to the time when carriages shared the streets with sputtering, first cars, holding hands was a big deal, parents were respected. Family patriarch, newspaper editor Nat Miller (Lionel Barrymore), is kind, wry, wise and ever patient with warm but prim wife Essie (Spring Byington). Four children include young Mildred and Tommy (Mickey Rooney), Arthur (Frank Albertson), just home from Yale, and new high school graduate Richard (Eric Linden). Also in the house are sweet, alcoholic Uncle Sid (Wallace Beery) and Cousin Lily (Aline MacMahon).
Richard, the axis of this portrait, takes himself (and life) seriously, frequently quoting from literature, aspiring to lofty achievement. His over-protected, timid girlfriend Muriel (Cecelia Parker) won’t let him touch her. The boy plans their eventual marriage frustrated, but respectful. Suddenly she rejects him. In downward spiral, Richard has an ersatz vengeful misadventure learning a lesson. Sid tries to reform and fails. The Millers unfailing good humor and Nat’s perceptions are omnipresent. This is when Rooney was discovered for Andy Hardy. Rent on Amazon Prime.
You Can’t Take It with You 1938 Adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Directed by Frank Capra. Successful banker Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) is intent on buying the 12-block radius around a munitions factory to put it out of business, but one house is a holdout. When considerable money is refused, his real estate agent is told to make trouble for the family.
Kirby’s son, Tony (James Stewart) a vice president, has fallen in love with company stenographer Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur), unaware it’s her family his father is trying to route out. Her concerns rest in the Kirby’s disapproval for lack of social standing. The family of eccentrics is helmed by Grandpa Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore) who has never paid his income tax because he doesn’t believe in it.
Others present include: Perpetually happy Penny (Spring Byington) who writes plays and paints but is terrible at both; Penny’s husband Paul (Samuel S. Hinds), a tinkerer who manufactures fireworks in the basement with the help of his assistant Mr. De Pinna (Halliwell Hobbes), an iceman who came inside to speak to Paul five years before, and never left; Essie Carmichael (Ann Miller), daughter of Penny and Paul, who makes candy and dreams of being a ballerina, her opinionated Ballet Instructor Boris Kolenkhov (Mischa Auer) and her husband Ed, an amateur printer and xylophone player (Dub Taylor).
Alice and Tony decide to bring their folks together, but the Kirbys arrive on the wrong day encountering chaos. Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards. Barrymore’s crippling arthritis was incorporated into the plot of the film. His character was on crutches. Rent on Amazon Prime.
On Borrowed Time 1939 Adapted from the Paul Osborn play, itself based on a novel by Lawrence Edward Watkin. A retelling of the Greek fable in which Death is tricked into climbing a pear tree which had been blessed by Saint Polycarp to trap anyone who was trying to steal an old woman’s pears. Directed by Harold S. Bucquet. Wise and charming.
Small town, rural America. Gramps (Lionel Barrymore) and Granny Nellie (Beulah Bondi) are looking after grandson Pud (Bobs Watson) since his parents died in a car crash, so far thwarting Aunt Demetria (Eily Malyon) who’s trying to assume custody in order to get her hands on bequeathed money. When Brink = Death (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) comes to “collect” the old man, he’s mistaken for an ordinary trespasser and shooed away.
Pud believes in wishes. Gramps exclaims that he wishes anyone who climbs his tree to steal apples will have to stay there until he allows them to leave. Pud gets temporarily stuck. The wish works. Brink peacefully takes Nellie, then returns for Gramps who, this time, recognizes him. The old man knows that if he dies, Pud will fall into Demetria’s hands. He tricks Death into climbing the tree. Demitria finds out why and threatens to have him put in an asylum. Nothing can die as long as Brink is captive. This presents its own set of problems.
Having broken his hip twice, Barrymore was actually wheelchair bound. The Hays Code required toning down salty dialogue that was the most comically shocking and endearing part of of Gramps and Pud. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Lionel Barrymore is also featured in all the original Dr. Kildare films.
Svengali 1931 Based on the novel Trilby by George du Maurier. Directed by Archie Mayo. A pre-code horror film made before hypnotism was common. Sinister singing teacher Svengali (John Barrymore – ah the eye make-up) and roommate Gecko (Luis Alberni) visit the studio of English artists, The Laird (Donad Crisp), Monsieur Taffy (Lumsden Hare), and Billee (Bramwell Fletcher), in hopes of a meal. Upon leaving they meet pretty, young Trilby O’Farrell (Marian Marsh), an artist’s model. Svengali is captivated but Trilby falls for Billee.
Weeks pass. Under pretext of curing a headache, the professor hypnotizes Trilby. Thereafter the girl is in his power. At his instructions, she fakes suicide and leaves Paris with him. Five years later, as Madame Svengali, Trilby has become singing toast of Europe. Her friends find her and Billee resolves to get his girl back… The film survives complete. It was transferred onto 16mm film by Associated Artists Productions in the 1950s. Free with Amazon Prime.
Grand Hotel 1932 Based on the play by William A. Drake, itself based on the novel Menschem im Hotel by Vicki Baum. Directed by Edmund Goulding. Best Picture Academy Award. A must-see. The first film to feature brothers Lionel and John Barrymore together.
The interweaving of disparate characters whose lives change: Down and out, amoral Baron Felix von Gaigern (John Barrymore); timid, fatally ill accountant Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), spending his last days in luxury; Kringelein’s former employer, industrialist General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery), there to close a vital merger; Stenographer (aspiring actress) Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford); and Prima Ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo).”Grand Hotel. Always the same. People come. People go. Nothing ever happens.”
Twentieth Century 1934 can be found in Stream Leading Ladies (When There Were Leading Ladies) V
Dinner at Eight 1934 Adapted from George S. Kaufman/Edna Ferber’s play. Directed by George Cukor. A pre-code classic whose flip, sophisticated dialogue never diminishes aspects of tragedy. Terrific cast. Society matron Millicent Jordan (Billie Burke) gives a dinner for (social coup) Lord and Lady Ferncliff (who never show up).
Her husband, Oliver (Lionel Barrymore), secretly on the verge of bankruptcy, makes sure that industrialist Dan Packard (Wallace Beery) and his ditsy, sex-on-the-hoof wife Kitty (Jean Harlow) are present in hopes of financial bail out. (The Packards have very different reasons for attending.) For his own sake, Oliver invites stage actress (and ex-flame) Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler).
Daughter Paula Jordan (Madge Evans) waits with bated breath for the return from abroad of fiancé Ernest DeGraff (Phillips Holmes). When Millicent loses her extra man, she unwittingly asks former silent screen star, now burned out drunk Larry Renault (John Barrymore), with whom Paula is having a clndestine affair. Add liquor, two olives, and stir.
The name of Carlotta Vance’s dog, Tarzan, was changed from Mussolini by MGM executives afraid of offending the Italian leader. According to Cukor, Barrymore created the character Larry Renault using memories of his father-in-law, Maurice Costello, his brother-in-law, Lowell Sherman, and himself. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Playmates 1941 Directed by David Butler. An oddity. A year before his death, John Barrymore chews scenery as a caricature of himself in a film that revolves around/publicizes the Kay Kyser dance band. It’s premise is that both men need publicity. Barrymore is broke and owes the IRS. If he becomes front page news, a radio station will hire him to host. Kyser is riding a wave, but no longer headlines. Both men play themselves.
PR people Lulu Monahan (Patsy Kelly) and Peter Lindsay (Peter Lind Hayes) concoct a plan to have the actor coach the musician in Shakespearean theater, ending with a performance starring both for a charitable cause. Neither man is enthusiastic. There are deceptions, mishaps, tangential romances (Lupe Velez fires up as Barrymore’s girlfriend, vocalist Ginny Simms as Keyser’s), and a turnabout ending with updated musicalization of Romeo and Juliet. Good grief. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Night Song 1948 can be found in Stream Leading Ladies (When There Were Leading Ladies) IV
Lionel (Grigori Rasputin), John (Prince Chegodieff) AND Ethel Barrymore (Czarina Alexandra) are all in 1933’s Rasputin and The Empress. Directed by Richard Boleslawski. The film’s inaccurate portrayals resulted in a historically significant lawsuit against MGM and gave rise to the “all persons fictitious disclaimer” which has since become standard in Hollywood works of fiction. It marked Ethel Barrymore’s sound film debut and is the earliest known recording of her famous voice. A lavish production taken with several grains of salt.
Featured photo: USA Stamp with actors John, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore, circa 1982. Bigstock